Honeymoon by Elane Johnson

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different phases of the moon in the night skyThe changing moon—like new love, I’ve read, no sooner full than it begins to wane—lingers over Acapulco Bay, leaving silver kisses on the inky water. We take our honeymoon there although my heart isn’t in it, hopelessly lost on the one who got away. My husband has arranged our newlyweds’ holiday, has secured our room on the 14th floor of the Hyatt Regency in the Golden Zone. Nothing but the best, he says. He’s afraid to disappoint me, afraid I don’t love him, that I can’t.

That morning, at the airport, an American woman with one leg glares at me because she catches me staring. It’s because she has the most luminous azure eyes I’ve ever seen; her missing limb is the last thing I noticed. I remember now and still wish I’d told her, but I hadn’t yet learned to speak up. Our cabbie plays frenzied Mariachi music that drowns out the high-strung engine’s whine on the drive along the Costera, the main coastal road, which winds and swirls through the mountains, which glitters at night with city lights, a starlet’s sequined gown. An ocean breeze, heavy and briny, curls through the cab’s open windows, and I lean my face into the sun, hungry for warmth. At the hotel, our cabbie helps us with our luggage, warns us against the Blue Shirts, the leathered men who want our money, who offer us anything, everything, todo. One of them grasps my arm, spews a quick staccato sentence I don’t understand, and I pull away, startled and offended by his liquored syllables, the ugliness against all the beauty.

Our room, opulent with a massive four-poster bed and travertine floors and wispy white curtains flitting on the whispering wind, overlooks the bay. We nap until night when the water’s blackness bleeds into satin sand. Flickers of candlelight dot the shore, and we go down to El Pescador to dine at the water’s edge. The first feeling of tiny suction cups against my tongue kills my appetite. My husband tries to pick out all the octopus segments, but dinner is ruined. My jaw hurts from wanting to be somewhere else. Back in the room, I pad across the cool floor and step out onto the balcony, naked, a sacrificial offering to my husband, reclining on an exquisite chaise. It’s dark enough that he can’t see the truth in my expression. It’s dark enough that he could be someone else.

We are awakened in the deep blue night as the earth shifts and rumbles beneath us, our marital bed tottering over the floor. “Earthquake,” my husband mumbles, as if he knows one. He rolls back into his slumber, and I lie in wait for morning, drowning in reality. It’s too late, too late.

The night before our wedding, I’d dialed a familiar number and, holding my breath, had said nothing when he didn’t answer; she did. This girl—the one I’d known for most of my life, the one who’d taken my place—this girl had answered the phone, groggy, drunk with sleep, maybe high from making love. I’d imagined that he would pick up, that we’d pull some kind of romantic-comedy trick, that we’d run away together from our momentum marriages. Too late.

My husband knows how I hate to be off the ground, yet he schedules para-sailing for the two of us the next morning. I don’t go, and he waves furiously, grinning like a half-wit, gliding in a cobalt sky above the palms and out of my sight. I order piña coladas, served in hollowed pineapples, and bake myself brown by one of the aquamarine pools. I take a dip to cool off, and a man swims over to the corner where I’m sitting on the bottom, the shallow water up to my waist.

“You look like your dog just died,” he says.

“No,” I say. And I don’t know why, but then I say, “I’m on my honeymoon, but the guy I love is getting married this Saturday in the exact church where I got married last Saturday. Same priest.”

“Oh,” is all he says, and after an awkward minute or two, he swims away. Hours later, my husband finds me in a dead sleep under my beach towel, my eyes still swollen from crying. We stride off the pool deck directly onto the smooth, warm sand by the bay, and in just a few steps, we’re submerged in the Pacific. The temperate water rocks us gently into each other, and he holds me close, too close, for too long. “We have to get ready,” he says.

“Ready for what?” I lean away and look up at him. Uncertainty clouds his features, tugs at his wary smile. He stares above my head. I see that I’ve hurt him, so I fall back into his embrace.

“We have to get ready, get dressed for the night. We’re going somewhere special,” he says. I say OK and wonder how everyone is back home.

Somewhere special is La Perla, the restaurant famous for its view of the Clavadistas, the cliff divers who jump off La Quebrada into dangerous tides that form in the shallow streams below. After they fling themselves off the rocks with fiery torches at the end of outstretched arms and slice through the water, two of the divers come to our table, still dripping in their white swim trunks, and I want to touch their sinewy backs and lithe limbs. I don’t understand their bravado, their confidence. I want to know what it feels like. Spineless as a jellyfish, I have washed ashore on the wrong beach.

The divers find out we are honeymooning and bring us pastellitas—little coffee cakes—and it turns out the couple next to us are also just married. They are a bit older, very drunk, his third marriage, her second. The couple has planned a glass-bottomed boat excursion for the next afternoon, and they invite us. We agree to meet at the pier.

My husband and I walk back to the hotel, the strip undulating with hordes of nightclub patrons, clamoring outside Baby ’O where they can dance and run up a tab into dawn.

“Want to go in?” my husband asks.

“I just want to sleep,” I say. “I’m tired.”

A throng of police, in their blue uniforms, break through the crowd, pressing nightsticks into young girls’ backs, teasing, daring. From our concierge, we know to stay clear of the blue uniforms because they are looking for trouble, and they sometimes make it for fun. The Federal Police, in brown and black and gray, are the blue’s antithesis. We can trust them. They protect and serve and provide a necessary balance. There always needs to be balance. Between love and hate? Good and bad? Truth and denial? Is there a point where things become so even that we just feel nothing?

We see no brown and black and gray to shield us from the blue, so we hurry on to our hotel where we’ll be safe. In the room, I change into an old t-shirt—my gorgeous French lace negligee wadded and forgotten at the bottom of my suitcase. I’m sinking into the luxurious bed when I see a cockroach, coffee black and as large as my hand, fly onto the ceiling right above my head. I’m paralyzed for a moment, but then I rocket into the bathroom where my husband is brushing his teeth. I grab him and shove him into the bedroom.

“Get it,” I shriek, and point up.

“Oh, my god,” he says, and runs back to the safety of the bathroom. “I’m not getting it.” He looks as stricken as I feel.

“Do something,” I say. Be the fucking man, I want to say. He would get it, I want to say. But, no. My husband finally agrees to dart into the room and call for assistance. I stand out in the hall while two employees kill the beast, but I insist upon seeing its smashed carcass, which covers the entire surface of the toilet bowl, before they send it to its watery grave. Even though I know it’s gone, and we close the balcony door, I’m restless and fretful all night, tallying up my husband’s list of faults and imagining crawling sensations on my face, my neck, my scalp.

After lunch the next day, we join our newfound friends—already drunk—for the boat trip to Isla la Roqueta, a small tropical island across Acapulco Bay. Our boat circles the harbor, and we thrill at the homes of the wealthy, snap disposable cameras at the villa where the 35th president took his bride long before his honeymoon memories splattered her pink suit. A young boy, perhaps 12 or 13, dives over the side and then reappears under our feet in the murky emerald water through the glass bottom. His hair wiggles like worms, his white teeth shine like pearls against the water’s velvet. I shudder with a sudden wave of nausea, the motion of the boat sending me reeling to its railing. My husband, the future doctor, does not move from his seat. His pleasant bedside manner no longer extends to me. I can’t blame him.

The young boy climbs back onboard, and he wields an urchin, its test the dull red of a faded Valentine. He tears it in two, just like an orange, and bites out the meat inside. I have to look away, lean over into the wake. He laughs and steals beside me, instructs me to bend my head down toward his feet. From an old tin bucket, he scoops handfuls of cool ocean water and tenderly rains them down the back of my neck. The soothing streams work my scalp like talented fingers. My sickness vanishes, I’m riding a wave of blessed relief, and for the first time since I’ve arrived in Acapulco, I see clearly how this trip ends.

elane johnson headshotElane Johnson’s nonfiction has appeared in Brevity, Superstition Review, Sonora Review, The Indianapolis Star, Indystar.com, and The East County Gazette among other publications. Her award-winning “Aftermath” is featured in college creative writing curricula across the United States and internationally. Her essay, “Porn Star,” is included in the anthology, Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly (InFact Books, March, 2014). Elane holds an MFA (with distinction) in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches creative writing and composition for universities online. She is married to the writer, Stephen Ulrich.

  34 comments for “Honeymoon by Elane Johnson

    • Hahahaha!! Alaska. I second that, Frank. I didn’t include in the essay that I was violently ill for two days because of something that I ate or drank. Damn Montezuma!! I just think that vomit isn’t very conducive to honeymooning.

  1. Elane, you really know how to paint a picture for your readers! I feel sorry for the new bride. She has created a life of silent torment for herself. I want to know why! I realize that’s not the important detail here, but you left me wanting more. The sign of an excellent writer my friend!

    • Hi, Diane-
      Thank you for the generous comments! Trust me when I say that I feel sorry for my ridiculous young self too, but I really had no business getting married at that age. I would love to know how so many of my friends–you included–were able to navigate the changes in maturity so that you have stayed married to your first love. I’ve thought of doing a survey, so I’ve got to get on it! You’re on my list. 😀

  2. Another intriguing story Elane! Was captivated from the start! The description of the scenery and location were vivid, and really helped paint the canvas for the story.
    I felt sympathy for the woman for not being able to marry the man she loved, but also felt the husband was not to blame for not being the man she needed him to be.
    At the end when her sickness vanished and she realized how the trip was going to end, it had me looking for a 2nd chapter so I could find out too!

    • Hi, Alice-
      You are completely right that that poor guy was really blameless. It’s difficult to own how little I knew about maintaining a successful relationship. And, boy, did I think I knew it ALL! I’ve been thinking of that 2nd chapter too, and you’ve given me a nice kick in the pants to actually write the thing. Thank you!

  3. What a tale. I must admit I felt sorry for the poor bastard — until he wouldn’t kill the cockroach. Yep. That’s a deal-breaker. Although, I’m perfectly capable of killing or relocating any such vile creature, the fact that a man would go screaming to the bathroom over such a thing would have me wondering what he’d do if we were in real danger. I’m glad you got your happy ending, Elane.

    • Hi, Jayne-
      Hahaha!! I’m so sorry that it took this long to reply (I could not get my responses to post to save my life!), but I laughed so loud that I woke my sleeping husband, who did not appreciate my mirth one bit. Now, you remind me of my mother who thought that I was completely lame for not being able to kill a silly roach. She would crunch the things with her bare foot. Gaaaackkkk. Unfortunately, you are right that the roach incident was indicative of future responses to danger. We are both mighty fortunate that “we” didn’t work out.

  4. So beautiful. So lyrical. The imagery is perfection. And the courage with which you share intimate details is amazing. Brava!

    • Hi, Heather- Well, stop that! (Except the Italian. I’ll take Italian praise any time.) I had not considered the idea of having “courage” in sharing intimate details until I read your post. That assessment means a lot to me. It’s dang hard to put ourselves out there as writers, especially writers of nonfiction. The truth is that I am pretty crappy sometimes, like I’m certain everyone is. I feel much less alone to know that other people screw up too; plus I’m relieved that my pursuit of perfection is a waste of energy that I can let go.

  5. You never cease to amaze me! Talent at every turn! Loved the essay! It is no wonder that our kids learned so much from their favorite teacher! You put your heart into everything that you do! ❤️

    • Ohhhhhh, Penny! You are always so kind. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate just the fact that you read my piece, and the generous comments are a major bonus. I’m so sorry that you are a Florida girl because I miss you up here, but you can seriously keep your gargantuan bugs!!

  6. Wow! I am in awe of your writing once again!! Love love love it… I feel bad for the lady for not marrying her true love first…

    • True about not marrying the “true love” first, Rhonda. A whole lot of agony could have been avoided if I’d done that.

      • Right! The same goes for me….lol. I sure love your writing and cannot wait until our project is done (hint hint)…lol.

  7. Exquisite writing, Elane! Then again, all your works are
    fantastic. You are truly a gifted writer, and I’ll be a fan forever.

  8. Elane, this is absolutely a wonderful story! Even though the ending left the reader to guess what could have happened, I kept thinking, “Okay, she’s gonna ditch this dude and go get the love of her life.” Stephen is correct in that you painted a very vivid picture throughout the story, especially the cockroach (gross.) Yes, she did need a man who would kill those suckers for her..I think it should be a requirement. As always, I am in awe of your writing!

    • I wonder how many people DO agree with us that there has to be one person in the relationship brave enough to dispatch the nasty things like cockroaches, other assorted bugs, snakes, mice (<>), mean cashiers, etc. There can be a balance so that each partner takes care of the things that the other person can’t. That doesn’t seem too much to expect, does it?

      • No, not too much to expect as long as the partner that takes on the nasty things does not stop doing them. I can’t be having roaches and spiders, oh my!

  9. Everyone (married or unmarried) should read this clever and colorful story. Elane paints a very vivid picture of the event (the honeymoon with her former husband), describing scenes and emotions that resonate powerfully for all of us.

  10. It’s nice that *you* knew how the trip would end, but now *I* want to know how the trip ended! Lovely, Elaine. Absolutely lovely.

    • I think the point is that we aren’t meant to know. The best writers leave their readers guessing, hungering, panting for more of a conclusive ending. I like this ending because I can think of a dozen ways the vacation ended, though none of them positive. That’s the writer in me, I suppose.

      • Rebekah, that’s an excellent point because there are a million ways this episode could have gone. For example, if I hadn’t been a completely immature harpy, I might have realized what a nice guy I’d married. But, but, but, the roach! Amazing that it’s still a sticking point. Still, I like the idea that there are always multiple paths available, and as storytellers, we don’t always have to pick one for our readers.

    • Hahaha, Missy! Okay. Here’s the scoop. This poor husband never had a chance. We divorced, and I eventually found and married the “true love” for whom I pined while on honeymoon. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I am very, very good at mistakes.

  11. This is an absolutely beautiful story that speaks to our innermost feelings. How often had we had a relationship fall by the wayside, and we are plagued with regret? This story perfectly captures the ambiguity of lost love and new love that just isn’t working out the way we thought. The details of the sights and sounds really add to the meat of the story. The cockroach detail was especially a turning point of comparison where the character realized she has feelings for her lost love. A detailed and ambiguous ending leaves it open to interpretation for the reader. I very much enjoyed this story.

    • Hi, Rebekah- Thank you completely for the lovely comments. As Cindy said below, some relationships are “happily lost,” and rightly so. You know that old adage about one door closing so that another can open? So true. 😀

      • I absolutely know. I just feel like this story just hit home to me because when you lose someone you love, and you had no choice, it just happened – you have to make do with the hand that life deals you. <3

  12. You have reminded to be grateful for previous loves, happily lost, and my current love, who would kill the cockroach with relish if it meant one moment of peace for me.

    • Cindy-
      Hahaha!! That’s hilarious. The thing WAS massive, I admit. But come on! It’s true, though, that we should be most grateful for all our relationships, particularly the “happily lost” ones. 😀

    • Cindy,

      I can confirm that Elane remains panicked by even driving NEAR a Pine forest (where the little critters are known to reside). I can also confirm that I’ve personally (and vigorously) dispatched more than a few of the little devils to the cockroach “happy hunting ground.”

      But we’re even, because in all other matters she remains my ROCK and INSPIRATION.


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